The goal of this post is to start a discussion regarding how and why to diversify from China. Does a China plus one strategy make sense and if so, why?  I have put this same post on our China Law Blog Linkedin Group as it is easier to have multipartite discussions there than here.

Earlier this week, I wrote an article, entitled, China Plus One: How Vietnam’s Riots Help American Businesses, for Above the Law. The theme of that article (which I wrote from Hanoi) was that Vietnam — despite its recent riots — is still a great country for those looking to diversify from China:

Many American companies doing business in China have what is commonly referred to as a “China plus one strategy.” Such companies will have the bulk of their Asian operations in China, but will also be active in at least one other Asian country to hold down costs or reduce over-dependence on China. The increasing cost of labor (and other inputs) in China has accelerated the number of companies considering this strategy.

If you do a Google search for “China plus one,” Vietnam is listed one, two and three as the “plus one” that specifically mentions another country. It is also the country my law firm’s clients most often mention when considering where to go outside China.

Why do I see Vietnam as the ideal plus one country?

It is a safe (for Americans anyway) and beautiful country. It has great food (sorry, but that matters to me). It is a relatively inexpensive place to live well and its wages are low. Its people generally like Americans, and English is by far the leading foreign language in its schools. Vietnam (not China) is a member of ASEAN and Vietnam (not China) will be a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All of these things are plusses for business.

Its main minuses are that its electrical and transportation are relatively undeveloped and it is certainly no less corrupt than China.

I went on to talk about how the recent riots in Vietnam, though troubling and obviously not good for Chinese businesses, are, if anything, an opportunity for American companies there.

I received a couple many emails in response to that post, ranging from those that accused me of insensitivity to those which made great points about what it takes to diversify production from China to a place like Vietnam.

One email, raised some great points about the differing ways companies should diversify, depending on their size. Here are excerpts from that email:

I was at ________[massive company] at the time of the floods in Thailand and though we thought we had all of our production bases covered, that disaster taught me that we didn’t. You can never over-plan for disaster.

Big companies are good at planning for big disasters but like everyone they forget how good things can go bad in an instant without having anything to do with a natural disaster.  The Chinese companies that have shut down in Vietnam had no idea what was coming. Vietnam is a stable country and they thought they would be fine. I doubt that they had any plans for dealing with what hit them.

Big company get protection by having factories in multiple countries. When I was with _________[massive company], that is what we did and it was easy because we had so much money.  We would set up factories in different countries for redundancy.

Now that I am at a much smaller company, we cannot afford to use multiple factories or we will lose out on our economies of scale. What we do instead is spend to line up alternatives without using those alternatives yet. It takes us months to find the right source and by having them already in place we save that time. I realize this isn’t perfect, but it is better than just waiting around for a disaster and it costs us very little.

The other email bemoaned how difficult it is to secure manufacturing from countries other than China, due to what we typically call a lack of “information infrastructure”:

I am always reading about the need to diversify production but for a small company like mine, that is easier said than done. We do our manufacturing in Shenzhen and getting started there was easy. We interviewed 4-5 sourcing consultants, then hired one.  All of the companies we interviewed had worked with similar products and all of them had been helping companies with China sourcing for many years. It took us almost no time to get going in Shenzhen and everything was easy.

A few years ago when we started getting concerned about China prices we started looking at Vietnam and India and we never got anywhere with either country because we just never felt comfortable with what we were doing and seeing.  Neither of those countries are anywhere close to China in terms of helping American companies figure out what they need to do to succeed. I just don’t think most smaller companies even have the ability to leave China. You should address this issue sometime.

Like I said, both emails make very valid points.

Diversifying to a country like Vietnam is difficult for large companies and even harder for smaller ones. For some companies, the risks will all but demand that they diversify. For other companies, the costs will far outweigh the risks and it will not be worth it. About all I can say is that companies of all sizes should at least consider the costs and the benefits of diversifying, with diversifying maybe meaning little more than lining up a back-up supplier if everything goes to hell with the existing one.

Countries like Vietnam and India are far more difficult than China and that fact should go into any cost-benefit analysis on diversifying.  My firm has done almost nothing with India so I will leave that discussion for someone else. But we have done a fair amount with Vietnam and I cannot dispute that getting started in Vietnam is more difficult and hence riskier than getting started in China, and this is true of not just manufacturing. The number of good consultants and lawyers and accountants and engineers, etc., is far fewer and far more difficult to find in Vietnam than in China (even more so when you add in the requirement that they be well versed in dealing with American companies). But they are out there and once found, they tend to charge a bit less than in China simply because Vietnam costs are overall less than China.

I would love to hear what our readers are finding and doing out there?  What countries are you looking at and why? The comment lines — as always — are open. Please feel free to comment here or at our Linkedin Group.


Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.